An inside look at the making of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' episode 'Chuckles Bites the Dust'
Photo Credit: 20th Television
"A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants."
“Chuckles Bites the Dust” has been voted the best episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and even the best episode of television ever.
This comedy feat is only made more incredible given that the episode tackled an 'un-funny' topic – death.
Ed Asner, who portrayed Lou Grant, said, “ [The cast] got a little worried because our crew was a little elderly, and they were not chuckling too loudly at this particular show.”
According to MTM co-creator Allan Burns, the plot was actually inspired by a sad and strange news item where a man died after putting a large stewed tomato can over his head.
Using creative license, the writers developed a plot where WJM’s Chuckles the Clown met his untimely demise at the hand – or rather feet – of a rogue elephant.
Fans of MTM will remember that while Chuckles was a much talked about presence in the newsroom he only popped up on the show for three brief moments.
The episode was written by David Lloyd, also known for his work on The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, Cheers, and Frasier.
Fellow MTM writer Bob Ellison said of David Lloyd, “He lit up the writer’s room when he came in. And that’s a big part of the job, bringing the room to life, resuscitating it.”
Burns said, “The script we shot was pretty much what David gave us in his first draft.”
Lloyd won an Emmy for the episode in 1976, but before the warm reception, some originally had doubts.
Gavin MacLeod, who played Murray, recalled that frequent MTM director Jay Sandrich said, “Death isn’t funny” and turned down directing it.
Of course, Sandrich tells a different story and remembers passing on it in order to work with Broadway scene-stealer Eileen Heckart in a different episode entitled “Mary’s Aunt”.
The directing duties eventually went to Joan Darling, who was thrilled at the opportunity.
Originally, she was going to direct “Ted’s Wedding”, but found out a week before shooting that her request for “Chuckles” was granted.
Darling said, “Coming to a show like Mary Tyler Moore, if you have any brains at all, you don’t tell these people how to do this show, you just simply lead them.”
Darling recognized the comedy and humanity in the episode. Viewers saw Mary as next to perfection, so her hysterical, inappropriate reaction revealed the complex emotions everyone has around death.
“I also believed that since no women were directing, if I did this well enough I could establish the idea in people’s minds that women could direct," Darling recalled.
Darling became the first and only woman to be nominated for an Emmy for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
But as show time drew near, one problem still remained – Mary Tyler Moore’s giggles. According to cast mates, Moore laughed throughout the rehearsals – especially during Murray’s punchlines.
Moore remembered, “I would lose it. I really wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to get through.”
When taping began, Burns recalled, “Nobody dared talk to her, or even looked at her, like a pitcher with a perfect game going. I can't remember going into a final scene more nervous, but what you see is what we got.”
Darling said, “I just knew she could do it, and she believed me and delivered it brilliantly.”
For her hilarious performance, Moore won her fourth Emmy for MTM in 1976.
The episode first aired October 25, 1975.
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